Easter Bunny proliferates at malls
By Vikki Ortiz Healy
McClatchey-Tribune News Service
CHICAGO — Every successful employee begins with successful training, Marie Johnson believes, and so she delivered her best advice to the new hires who recently gathered in a vacant store space at Yorktown Center in Lombard.
Bunny does not talk.
Use a hairbrush to fluff up your fur and make sure you're pretty. Bunny needs to be pretty.
People aren't quite ready for Easter, so it's Bunny's job to draw attention.
Outside, a trio of teen girls took one look at the "Bunny School" sign taped to the entrance of the makeshift training room and burst out laughing.
But Johnson had driven 900 miles to impart her wisdom to these college students, former Chuck E. Cheese mascots and other aspiring Easter actors as part of a national Bunny-training road trip. She didn't miss a beat.
Bunny ignores the haters. And Bunny uses just one name. Like Madonna.
Year after year, Santa Claus may get most of the press but the Easter Bunny is slowly and skillfully creating a comfortable throne for himself in America's shopping mall atriums. This spring, some 30,000 children will line up to see the cotton-tailed rabbit at the Chicago-area Yorktown mall, compared with 22,500 five years ago.
Companies hired to place Easter Bunnies at shopping centers across the U.S. report similar increases elsewhere.
While sales of Easter candy and Easter outfits may be down, retail analysts say, the Easter Bunny — who, not surprisingly, appears at the mall earlier and earlier each year — remains a sure way to attract shoppers.
"It's showbiz, that's what I tell our group," said Johnson, vice president of Birmingham, Ala.-based IPCA, a company that hires and trains hundreds of Easter Bunnies across the country.
"Santa should be a little worried," said Lindsey Burke, marketing director for Yorktown Center. "The bunny has become an icon not only for Easter season, but also for spring."
In the late 1800s, American artists began using cute bunny and chickadee images on postcards and Easter greetings.
The Easter Bunny has reflected his times: During the Depression, he was depicted as a factory worker. In the civil rights era, he had beautiful brown fur, Frese said.
These days, the Bunny from Noerr Programs, a digital event imaging company based in Arvada, Colo., sports "more of a dressy look" — a blue velvet jacket and wire-rimmed spectacles, said company president Judy Noerr.
That look, updated from overalls, is just one of the changes as malls increasingly hire national companies to supply Santas, Bunnies and photographers instead of trying to coordinate the holiday help themselves.
These companies — there are just a handful, according to Noerr — do the hiring and training and offer the malls a cut of the sales from photos and frames. Yorktown Bunnies make a starting salary of $9 an hour.
At Bunny School, Johnson explained to trainees that Bunny doesn't talk to maintain Bunny uniformity. But there are other responsibilities.
Bunnies, when you take off your suit, turn it inside out and spray it with disinfectant.
Bunny must relieve himself before he dresses up.
Bunny's assistants — called Seater, Meeter, Greeters — learned how to keep Bunny comfortable. They hold his drinking straw to his cut-out mouth when he's getting hot. They sneak children's names into introductions — "Bunny, remember Matthew?" — to help break the ice before placing shy kids onto his lap.
And, perhaps most importantly, they ward off paparazzi parents who attempt to snap pictures with their own cameras instead of buying photos (ranging from $14.99 for Fluffy's Favorite to $39.99 for the Best Buy.)
After three hours of training, Patrick Huetten, 62, embodied Bunny's winning attitude so well that he was chosen Yorktown's Premiere Bunny — who would walk out to a crowd of screaming fans warmed up by a Radio Disney dance party.
"They're going to love me," said Huetten, an aspiring party planner who works as a jeweler and bar manager the rest of the week.
Pamela Frese, an anthropology professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio, thinks the popularity of the Easter Bunny — which was originally associated with the German goddess Eostre from whom the name Easter derives — demonstrates how Americans have increasingly turned to malls as community centers, where people of all religious backgrounds can celebrate so-called civil-religious holidays together.
"People are still seeking some meaning to life, and if they're not getting it in the churches, it's at least hopeful for me that they're trying to get it somewhere," Frese said.